Is New Composer Advocacy the Measure of a Conductor?

Is New Composer Advocacy the Measure of a Conductor?

Two weeks ago I attended the “Times Talk” interview of conductor James Levine. (It was my first time inside the new New York Times building on 41st Street. The “Times Talks” hall, with its floor-to-ceiling upstage windows aerily looking out onto a courtyard, is a pleasantly un-Times Square-ish affair.) I’m second to none in my admiration of Maestro Levine’s manifold accomplishments. To the extent I have one, he’s my personal favorite conductor. To me, being at the Met and hearing him conduct the fabulous Metropolitan Opera Orchestra is one of the greatest privileges in today’s music world. The diaphanous pianissimo of the orchestra in a Pelléas a few seasons back—ineffably delicate, yet carrying throughout the house—still lingers not only in my ears but in my eyes: I can still see Levine’s subtle podium cues. Years earlier, I attended a Kathleen Battle lieder recital at Alice Tully with Levine accompanying at the piano. He was, uncannily, her invisible conductor. It was the greatest performance by a piano accompanist I ever heard in my life.

During the Rudolf Bing years the playing of the orchestra was rarely sumptuous, and often much less (although I did attend the magnificent Karajan Walküre in my youth, a couple of years after the new house opened.) Levine’s band is an outstanding orchestra not only under his but under every guest conductor’s baton, including Placido Domingo’s. Bing brought in The Rake’s Progress, but for the most part his regime was chestnuts and warhorses, its only premieres the two Samuel Barber operas and the recently NYCO-revived Martin David Levy Mourning Becomes Electra. (The Sacco and Vanzetti commission to Marc Blitzstein was aborted by Blitzstein’s death, its only version completed years later, elsewhere, by Leonard Lehrman). But at Levine’s Met, we’ve had Lulu, Mahagonny, much Janáček, Busoni’s Doktor Faust, Prokofiev’s War and Peace, Porgy and Bess (finally), and new operas by Philip Glass, John Corigliano, John Harbison, and Tobias Picker.

Levine’s interlocutor during the “Times Talk” was Anthony Tommasini, who, a good new music champion himself, dutifully pointed out to the audience Levine’s performances and championship, with the BSO and other orchestras, of the supposedly audience-unfriendly music of Carter, Babbitt, and Wuorinen. Tommasini’s point emboldened one person amid the deferential, even adulatory questioners at talk’s end to ask: Would Levine ever conduct Henze? Ah, that “n” word: “new” music!

Tommasini had to explain to the audience who Henze was! Levine answered that he likes Henze but must make triage decisions. He said he has a “horror” of superficial involvement and dabbling; “I’m not sure I could commit to a new opera premiere every year,” he added, and hold to the high standards of preparation he demands of himself. In further support of this, he cited two composers whose music he loves but won’t conduct because he doesn’t feel the right affinity: Shostakovitch and Bruckner. Why doesn’t he premiere the work of younger, newer composers? Because, he said, (here I’m paraphrasing) he has only a small slice of quality time for new music, and he chooses to give most of it to the older Turks of the Second Viennese School, who both need it and have been around longer. And he likes their music, anyway.

I thoroughly believed Maestro Levine’s reply. (By the way, his enormous energy and quickness throughout the talk dispelled any anxieties about his health.) Yet later that day I heard rumbling within me the famous criticism of Toscanini levelled by Virgil Thomson and seconded by Joseph Horowitz: that a conductor who doesn’t continually premiere the new works of his day has defaulted from the full measure of his power to make musical history. (Even Toscanini, early on, premiered Puccini.) I’m not even faintly suggesting here that Levine has dropped the baton of championship. Levine has done superb service to art as an exponent of certain particular contemporary composers who need friends like him in high places—not just because their scores demand the stupendous musicianship he brings, but because his performances of them stamp the imprimatur of the mainstream, bringing on them a kind of ultimate benediction, a seal of approval.

The fact remains that the single most career-making figure for any new composer is an orchestra conductor who decides to champion him. Leopold Stokowski presented not only American premieres of Stravinsky, Schoenberg, and Berg before 1935, but performances of Cowell, Ornstein, and Varèse before those composers were old. Koussevitsky made Aaron Copland in America when Copland was in effect a graduate student, and later made several other American composers when they were still in their 30s and 40s. Yes, “made” in the musical mafia sense. So, perhaps, has Robert Spano done for Jennifer Higdon, and Esa-Pekka Salonen for Steven Stucky. Neither composer had been around decades like Elliott Carter or Milton Babbitt, but they found important conductors to champion them now, not tomorrow. If a James Levine understandably can’t place his not unlimited resources there, somebody’s gotta.

So why is this happening nowadays so sporadically? It seems to me that most of those conductors who do premiere new music regularly are spreading their favors among many, rather than championing a favorite dark horse. Or am I wrong?

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20 thoughts on “Is New Composer Advocacy the Measure of a Conductor?

  1. Daniel Wolf

    “The fact remains that the single most career-making figure for any new composer is an orchestra conductor who decides to champion him.”

    With all due respect, that’s (a) only applicable to those composers for whom conducted orchestral music is at the center of their work, and (b) irrelevant to orchestral structures — for example, radio orchestras in Europe and Japan — for which management other than conductors is responsible for programming.

    Each of the conductors mentioned here cultivates a relatively small number of composers, and maintains a small number of pieces by these composers in their active repertoire. More important, I believe, are those conductors — a David Robertson, Jonathan Nott, or a Peter Eötvös who are both flexible and serious about keeping their portfolios open to new composers and new repertoire.

  2. MarkNGrant

    The faint response to my premise here about conductor championship of new music suggests to me two possibilities:

    1) that for younger composers today (at least those who read these pages) the orchestra is no longer the aesthetic summum bonum it had been for a couple hundred years. Why? Well, perhaps there’s been a downsizing of creative aspiration wrought by the availability of the pseudo-orchestral palette of keyboard digital sampling. Who needs a live acoustic orchestra when you can program your orchestration into a synthesizer affordably, while maintaining a level of command and control that you otherwise cede to a stranger, the conductor. Or maybe there’s a deeper paradigm change here, that for some other reason composers just aren’t vitally interested in writing for the orchestra any more. Is there a perception afoot that the orchestra has had its day in the aesthetic canon as the reproductive medium par excellence?

    2) contrary to number 1, many composers are indeed still very interested to compose for orchestra, but the impediments to performance are so overwhelming (the exorbitant overhead of rehearsal and score preparation, sheer lack of opportunity, etc.) that they abandon the aspiration. (Frank J. Oteri has himself commented on this state of affairs repeatedly in his writings on NMBox.) So any questions about championship are too remote from most composers’ experience to excite the shock of recognition.

    Great music has always been written in many media besides the symphony orchestra (the string quartet, the piano sonata, Nancarrow’s pianolas, etc.) Even so, I find it peculiar and alarming that few composers here really seem to give a mosquito’s butt whether the mere question of performance of new orchestra music is at all urgent.

  3. Trevor

    Having come of age with Mahler and Stravinsky, I was always greatly interested in the orchestra… however, as far as modern music goes, I am nothing but greatly, greatly disillusioned. The vast majority of all orchestras today are completely uninterested in engaging in intriguing new music; that which they do commission conforms to old paradigms. And it boils my blood when I hear it said that composers of a less populist style can’t write for orchestra. Of course they can’t, they’re never given the chance. And on the rare occasion when they get the opportunity, the lack of experience dooms them before even getting a repeat performance. Even Mahler extensively revised his orchestration after the first performances of his first few symphonies, yet we expect today’s composers to be able to do it well despite having no real world experience.

    Of course, composers being the brash people that we are, aren’t uninterested in the orchestra because we’re afraid it won’t be good enough. In fact I’ve only ever heard one composer claim they would never write for it, even among composers who use computers and MIDI and what have you. The fact is that the orchestra is unwilling to engage in techniques that have been commonplace for chamber ensembles for decades. Hell, even the LA Phil couldn’t pull off a basic altered tuning system for a piece by John freakin’ Adams. (Not to be confused with John Luther Adams.)

    And its irritating, because there’s an amazing, amazing timbral palette there that’s being completely underutilized in this country. Granted, there’s exceptions many points in this argument, but this is the general sentiment of a lot of us young whippersnappers.


  4. Dennis Bathory-Kitsz

    Mark, your re-proposal of the topic yearns for an answer, but it is so complicated. I’m no longer one of the young composers (alas), but can relate my experiences.

    As a young composer, I wrote seven orchestral pieces. None could get any interest whatsoever, so I gave up. From 1968 to 1985, I didn’t write another.

    Then I organized an orchestra of every musical friend I knew to perform a new piece, and it got some attention in the local musical community. Since then, I’ve had eight orchestral pieces performed (some several times) and one scheduled for May, but all in Vermont. Although I was commissioned by a European orchestra, politics scuttled that performance, and because they weren’t commissioned, four other orchestral pieces haven’t gotten performances.

    What I’ve learned is that you gotta know somebody. Craig Bakalian has complained here about that, and although his tone is nasty, he’s pretty much right. Submitted scores don’t get performed. There are limited resources, so an old-boy (and now -girl) network of school buddies and student-teacher symbiosis gets stuff done. I was also advised about this with respect to an opera I’ve been writing — it’s 99% schmooze, and if you’re not there in the community, you won’t get heard. The music itself is entirely irrelevant.

    Beyond that, orchestral forces differ. Why even bother to write a piece if you don’t know who will perform it? Of all the pieces I’ve had premiered, only one was for a complete 19th century orchestra — reduced forces in some way otherwise prevailed.

    And I haven’t even mentioned the music or the performance! This is irrespective of musical style or substance, and the quality of the performance. Of those performances, only one met the standard set by the music itself, and that was a thumpin rhythmic piece.

    And don’t even get started on the madness of getting recordings (much less radio or release rights) to any of your own music!

    Sure, there’s really nothing like a live orchestral performance, but still, were I 25 again, I probably would stay with smaller forces, odd mixtures (as it stands now, less than 4% of my music is for orchestra anyway), or electronic renderings. I mean really, why bother? Maybe there’s a chance if you get to have some fame in places with many orchestras such as Europe, or if you have deep pockets and can buy one of those Eastern European package deals — but then what does it matter if almost nobody’s really listening anyway?


  5. rtanaka

    Hey, the orchestra has been around for several hundred years now. If you look at the history of music its really not that uncommon for standard ensemble types of shift according to historical needs. The orchestra has had a pretty good run so far…maybe its time it got retired.

    Speaking of which, I might get an opportunity to write for a high-school wind band. Now there’s a medium that has a lot of potential — it’s all over the place across the country, a fairly strong “American” trademark, and there’s a definite lack of “serious” music in that area because a lot of composers seem adverse to it. Probably a class thing, I’m guessing.

  6. coreydargel

    a lot of composers seem adverse to [wind band]. Probably a class thing, I’m guessing.

    That’s a pretty wild guess.

  7. rtanaka

    Hey, I bought my horn for 2k and it lasted me 10 years. Some of my friends’ bows cost 5 times as much as my piece of piece of piping, which I think is insane. String instruments are expensive, not to mention fragile. There’s a reason why schools (which tends to be underfunded in general, especially the music programs) tend to have wind bands instead of orchestras…they simply can’t afford it!

  8. philmusic

    Ryan, do you happen to have a philosopher’s stone that changes “composers” into “string orchestras? Now that’s class! and–I want one!

    Phil Fried

  9. ArtsWorker

    I feel the wrath of embittered composers here!!

    I don’t blame you folks (I’m not a composer myself), but I think some young composers look at things from the wrong perspective. I work at a summer music festival, and the young composers quite often show up believing that they will be ‘discovered’ by some big-shot and their pieces will magically be played by major orchestras.

    They fail to realize that it IS about who you know (as most things are in this world). What they should be doing instead of sucking up to the famous names, is cultivating friendships and collaborations with their peers. As a young musician, your peers are the big-shots of tomorrow.

    Before any major orchestra will take on your work, you have to start with regional orchestras, festival orchestras, student groups, and those rare ensembles that focus solely on new works. You have to make a name for yourself before the Chicago Symphony or New York Phil will take a chance on you. That’s how it works.

    But I take issue with those who believe it is not about the music. As I stated, it is about who you know, but if you’re talentless that still won’t get you very far. Conductors champion composers who they know and like and whose work they respect and admire. No one in their right mind would be willing to put their neck on the line for a composer whose work was not up to snuff, even if that composer was a really cool person =)

    Remember that conductors ARE putting their necks on the line with new works. Levine is criticized heavily in many Boston circles for his preference for programming new music, yet as has been pointed out he only programs the old stalwarts like Wuorinen and Carter. If he performed a piece by some 23-year-old kid, he’d be raked over the coals. It’s fine to think that he should still do it, but it’s important to recognize that there are consequences for conductors who champion contemporary works. They are usually relegated to second-class status, as though conducting new pieces is the only way they can get work because they aren’t good enough to interpret Brahms or Beethoven. That’s usually poppycock of course, but it’s an active stereotype in the music world.

  10. MarkNGrant

    Having come of age with Mahler and Stravinsky, I was always greatly interested in the orchestra….In fact I’ve only ever heard one composer claim they would never write for it, even among composers who use computers and MIDI and what have you.

    Touché, Trevor. Good to hear your sentiments. Undoubtedly the last sentence of my post was overstated and crudely aimed, and I apologize. It comes from my being just as mad as you are that it’s so hard to get orchestral readings in this country.

    The fact is that the orchestra is unwilling to engage in techniques that have been commonplace for chamber ensembles for decades. Hell, even the LA Phil couldn’t pull off a basic altered tuning system for a piece by John freakin’ Adams.

    True, but I’d suggest that part of the reason for this is not so much aesthetic unwillingness as the economic exigencies of rehearsal time when one assembles large numbers of unionized orchestra players.
    When you multiply the payload, you multiply the payroll– every extra rehearsal adds thousands of dollars to the payroll, and to rehearse a tutti scordatura is going to take more than a prima vista or even a second go. The dollar overhead required to get massed players to perfect this kind of adventurous writing is prohibitive; even very established composers often must scratch and claw for a third rehearsal. So in our American orchestra environment, the larger the concerted forces, the more the composer must adopt a strategy of rendering orchestral writing realizable in a minimum of rehearsals. That’s why Sergiu Celibidache exerted such a mystique, demanding unheard of numbers of rehearsals. The smaller the group, the more feasible it is to achieve the kinds of ambitious effects you refer to. Bartok’s string quartets are far more demanding of the players than even the string writing in his Concerto for Orchestra.

    Sure, there’s really nothing like a live orchestral performance, but still, were I 25 again, I probably would stay with smaller forces, odd mixtures (as it stands now, less than 4% of my music is for orchestra anyway), or electronic renderings. I mean really, why bother?

    Dennis, I’ve spent a lot of time in Vermont the past 25 years, and around 1990 a friend in Brattleboro gave me a cassette recording of Vermont composers’ works for piano. There was a piece by you about a real-life Transylvanian vampire if I remember correctly that far and away impressed me as the most imaginative on the tape. A kind of hypercimbalom effect, as I recall, with inside the strings strumming? And I remember thinking at the time, this composer has an orchestral sensibility, not just a pianistic sensibility. So thank you, now I know my radar was true. Yes, but don’t we all suffer a little creative death when circumstances conspire to limit our utterances Like the playwright who in another era would routinely have written for a cast of 30 but now must write one or two character scripts in order to get produced. Limitations can enforce greater creativity, yet not every creative impulse benefits from such enforced confinement of design.

  11. Dennis Bathory-Kitsz


    (Yes, that was my tune on Michael Arnowitt’s old “Alive and Well” recording. The cimbalom effect was paper wound between the strings, but the instrument played normally from the keyboard. The Csárdás was commissioned for Michael’s recording of dance tunes.)

    The economic argument that you make to Trevor’s point about re-tuning misses an important issue: musicians should not need extraordinary time to retune. It’s a minute’s work on the outside — unless they are unwilling or unable to do it. It’s hard for me to believe that “the dollar overhead required to get massed players to perfect this kind of adventurous writing is prohibitive,” unless the players have consciously avoided developing their skills.

    That unwillingness or, if you will, incompetence has been a long-standing complaint about classical orchestras. Now I’m about to step out of my own competence with a question that might have an easy answer: As I understand it, orchestras for Hollywood films often have just one run-through and then one take, yet these musicians nail all sorts of special effects, great lush lines, driving polyrhythms, etc. Are they simply that good? With the surfeit of musicians in the U.S., do classical orchestras get all the mediocre ones, while the top-level players end up in commercial work?

    What will drive the entire level of competence — performer and composer — up? We can’t be modern-day Mahlers if we don’t get to explore and revise, as Trevor notes.

    I’ve had a dramatic orchestral failure, but with only one performance, can’t know where the responsibility lay for that failure. In 1990, I composed a piece for double chamber orchestra (on commission) that the musicians hated, that was played badly, and that the conductor couldn’t control. So was that because the musicians and conductor weren’t up to it (chops or attitude), or that I wrote something that simply couldn’t be executed? Having spent several months writing the piece and having one single performance to evaluate it, how can I ever know? And why would I ever want to go through that again? Why would they? So, as you suggest, I have tamed my player demands over the years, trying to achieve something artistically interesting while longing for the orchestra that could play, say, Penderecki with ease.


  12. coreydargel

    I think almost every sensible composer agrees that navigating the practical ridiculousness of working with an orchestra to perform a new piece of music is a soul-crushing process that usually provides the composer with an inadequate return for his or her investment, both in terms of number of performances and quality of performances.

    But there is another angle to this recurring and not particularly interesting question of “Why don’t more composers want to write for orchestra?” Some composers who choose not to write for orchestra make that choice not only for practical/logistical reasons, bur also for aesthetic reasons. For many of us, the orchestra does not represent the best of all sound-worlds. In fact, it may be near the very bottom of the list of ensembles we’d like to write for someday.

  13. Dennis Bathory-Kitsz

    Corey, why near the bottom? And what’s at the top, and why?

    It’s often near the top for me, though with some expansion (additional instruments and sometimes electronic sound). It’s near the top because of its possible sound worlds (tiny through large), its range (smallness to largeness), its personality (individual through massed cooperation), its spatial dimension (two dimensions, but more than, say, a near-point-source string quartet) and soundstage, its textures and densities (or lack of density), its enormous manipulable harmonic content, and the scope of its demand on the imagination.

    I don’t care about its association with the past that bothers some people, nor its distance from the audience. Those aren’t my responsibility, at least where I can’t spec the orchestra to be around the audience. There are things it can’t do — making it move isn’t easily there, nor can it handle any of the acousmatic stuff that I love. And it isn’t interactive, which plays a big role in my installations. And, unless you live in a community and know the musicians, it’s something of an anonymous blob. Those solutions are found elsewhere.

    After my 20-year hiatus from writing for orchestra, I could approach it with a greater personal involvement. Once that stage was reached, composition for orchestra made lots more sense. And it’s just overwhelmingly amazing if it works well.

    Still ain’t easy, though.


  14. coreydargel

    Hi, Dennis.

    I don’t imagine that all composers share my point of view, not do I wish to insist that they should! I know there are plenty of composers who like the orchestra aesthetically. I just want to make sure to represent the point of view that some composers have that, even if the practical/logistical problems of working with an orchestra were somehow possible to overcome, writing for the orchestra is not necessarily some sort of ultimate aesthetic goal we all wish to attain.

    I’ve just felt that that point of view was missing from this discussion.

    Personally, I’m interested in individual (single) instruments, amplified or in a small, intimate listening space. Separate and apart from notes and rhythms, I like the subtle, idiosyncratic sounds of fingers on keys, bows pressing against strings, incidental (or even accidental) noises that you can hear more clearly with one-on-a-part than with ten violinists playing the same line. Obviosuly, I don’t believe that large necessarily equals good, nor do I feel that the orchestra offers any substantively greater sound possibilities than any other ensemble. If anything, huge numbers of players often sounds muddier and less-interesting to me than singular instruments in smaller ensembles. That’s my opinion, which is why orchestra is not really on my list of dream ensembles. Now I shall brace myself for the inevitable attacks from those who don’t share my aesthetic preferences and who wish to unnecessarily pit their own preferences against mine, as though only one can be correct.

  15. Dennis Bathory-Kitsz


    No pile-on from me. I understand completely — some of my favorite composers don’t go near an orchestra because of aesthetic concerns that can’t be met by them. Larry Polansky and Yannis Kyriakides come to mind, among many fantastic composers creating transcendent worlds with deliberately spare materials. (I think Yannis did a chamber orchestra piece, but I’m not certain.)

    Certainly if I didn’t come of age listening to orchestral music, including gigundo-tunes like Gruppen and Carré that just made me crazy (good crazy), I don’t think that fascination would have come so easily if at all.


  16. MarkNGrant

    It’s hard for me to believe that “the dollar overhead required to get massed players to perfect this kind of adventurous writing is prohibitive,” unless the players have consciously avoided developing their skills.

    Dennis, whether or not the Adams/LA Phil orchestral retuning is the best example of this, may I remind you of the Philadelphia Orchestra’s commission of Milton Babbitt’s Transfigured Notes for string orchestra in the late 80s. Dennis Russell Davies gave up after one rehearsal, and his replacement Hans Vonk stopped rehearsing when the management stepped in to say no more. The players claimed to have practiced and learned it; it was the orchestra’s management that refused to allot the extra bucks for further rehearsals. Eventually, Gunther Schuller did it in Boston with a pickup group he contracted. Schuller conducted and paid for 12 (!) rehearsals before the premiere performance, and it still wasn’t a perfect performance, by Schuller’s own public admission.

  17. Dennis Bathory-Kitsz

    Mark, picking one of the extreme examples doesn’t make any particular case. How long was it before the Ives Fourth could be put together? Or for that matter, the Universe Symphony? Or complex metrical modernists?

    Babbitt is tough, and Transfigured Notes is notorious for its reputed unplayability — a half-hour nightmare. That’s really very different from basic skills like being able to retune in the Adams.


  18. MarkNGrant

    Yes, but…
    Yes, but it’s not a question of the musicians’ skills or desire, or the relative difficulty curve of any one piece. The issue is the cost of additional rehearsals and management’s desire/ability to foot the bills for such rehearsals. You’ve experienced the short end of that stick yourself, Dennis, according to your own account above of the single-rehearsal experience. I agree 1000% that one can’t tell the value of one’s own work from an inadequately rehearsed performance, and that’s the tragedy of it. As you pointed out, even a single additional orchestra rehearsal in many cases can make for a decisively different performance and, hence, an altogether different verdict on a new work.

  19. Dennis Bathory-Kitsz

    Mark, I think we’re talking in parallel.

    My comment was about basic skills for contemporary pieces not being taken care of. If they are in hand by the musicians (as they seem to be with the Hollywood pros), then there is no need for extra rehearsals or extra money. Those extras will need to be considered only when compositions with the Babbitt-like demands come around.

    As for my piece, I have no idea what the problem was. Several rehearsals were held, but my wife & I were hiking in the bottom of the Grand Canyon for ten days, arriving in time for the final rehearsal. I found a composition in disarray and musicians so furious that they’d had a food fight with the music, crumpling up parts and throwing them at each other. It was a horror story all around (oh yes, there’s much more) and to this day I don’t know the real source of the problem.

    There’s no online copy of the inked score, but the performance (outdoors) is here: Ÿçuré.



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